From the icy waters of the Beaufort Sea to the forests of Fairbanks, Alaska is full of unique ecosystems and wildlife! Over 11,000 species of animals call the wild lands and waters of Alaska their home. Alaska is also notably the only state in the US to have all three North American bear species: grizzly bears, black bears, and polar bears. Here’s a look at some of these amazing animals.
There is no animal more synonymous with Alaska than the mighty grizzly bear! Sometimes referred to as brown bears or the Alaskan grizzly, these massive bears are some of the largest in the world, with males reaching weights of up to 1,700 pounds! Alaska’s grizzly population resides around 30,000 bears.
While brown bear species exist in several northern US states and Canada, Alaskan grizzlies are known to be the largest due to their diet. Alaskan grizzly bears feed on rich fatty salmon, berries, and the occasional caribou or moose. During the summer salmon run, these fierce fishermen will often catch as much fish as they can and spend their days gorging by the river.
On the southern coast of Alaska, Katmai National Park and Preserve has the highest grizzly bear population of anywhere in the US, with over 22,000 resident grizzlies. A truly wild experience, people come from all over the world to visit Katmai for a chance to see a grizzly bear. Of course, this is a dangerous endeavor, so the park has strict rules and safety viewing platforms perched above the salmon streams where they fish.
Like many bears, grizzlies follow a seasonal pattern. They mate in the summer, feast in the fall, hibernate all winter, and finally emerge in the spring to feed again and rear their cubs.
Alaska’s grizzly bears are magnificent creatures that strike both a sense of fear and fascination. While they may look soft and cuddly, grizzly bears (or any bears, for that matter!) should only be admired from afar.
The Alaskan moose, also called the giant moose, is the largest of all subspecies of moose. The largest males of the species can weigh up to a whopping 1,600 pounds! While their habitat is more commonly marshlands, Alaskan moose have been known to wander into neighborhoods, and parking lots, and have even been seen crossing highways!
Alaskan moose spend most of their time near the water, feeding on vegetation. They will travel during the rutting or breeding season, as well as during calving season and winter. These are the times when roadside moose sightings tend to become more frequent.
Unfortunately, as a prey species, the Alaskan moose faces many threats, mostly from bears and wolves. Despite this, there is still a healthy population of Alaskan moose across the state due to their high reproductive rate.
American Black Bear
When most people think of Alaskan bears, the grizzly bear often comes to mind, but the American black bear is also found in abundance throughout the state. Around 100,000 American black bears inhabit forests everywhere except Alaska’s far northern or island regions.
Much smaller than their grizzly cousins, American black bears in Alaska typically only reach weights of around 350 pounds. They mainly eat berries and vegetation but will prey on smaller mammals or fish if the opportunity presents itself.
American black bears follow the same seasonal patterns as grizzlies, mating in the summer, gorging on all the food they can find in the fall, followed by hibernation in the winter. In the spring, black bears emerge from their dens, often with new cubs, and begin the process all over again.
Orcas, also known as “killer whales,” can be found throughout all waters surrounding coastal Alaska. They travel in familial packs known as pods hunting for fish, mostly Chinook salmon, which are plentiful in Alaskan waters. Amazingly, orcas can use their unique echolocation abilities to detect different species of fish and target their favorite meal!
Reaching lengths of up to 30 feet and weights up to 16,000 pounds, orcas are massive marine mammals. Their dorsal fin alone can be up to 6 feet tall. The lifespan of an orca is another impressive feat of the species, with some making it into their 80s!
Alaska has both what’s called resident and transient orcas. Resident orcas live in the waters off Alaska year-round, while transient orcas merely pass through. While orcas are found in oceans around the world, they thrive in colder waters near the poles, like Alaska.
Originally named Oomingmak or “bearded one” by indigenous Alaskans, the muskox is one of the oldest animals in North America. The muskox has relations to cattle and bison but is uniquely adapted for life on the Arctic tundra. These large creatures can weigh up to 800 pounds and spend most of their days grazing.
The muskox has two distinct layers of fur that allow them to survive in the frigid subzero temperatures of the Arctic. Researchers have discovered through fossils that the muskox has remained largely unchanged from their prehistoric ancestors. The muskox of today is the same as the one that roamed the earth with wooly mammoths!
In the 1800s, it was nearly hunted to extinction, but conservation efforts enacted in the 1930s led to a recovery of the species. While human threats have lessened significantly, the muskox is a prey species for bears and wolves. The population now stands at around 5,000.
In Alaska’s remote northern region, you’ll find the third type of bear the state is known for, the polar bear. A powerful predator, the polar bear is the largest land-dwelling carnivore in the world! Male polar bears can reach weights of 2,000 pounds or more. The largest polar bear on record in Alaska was a 12-foot tall, 2,209-pound male in the 1960s.
An estimated 4,000 to 7,000 polar bears live in Alaska, but due to their remoteness, they are much less commonly spotted than grizzly bears or black bears. Polar bears spend most of their time out on the sea ice hunting seals. During the summer, when there is limited ice, they have been known to venture into villages in search of food.
Polar bears are uniquely adapted for life in the Arctic. They have the thickest fur of any bear and a 4-inch layer of blubber to keep them warm. Polar bears also do not hibernate during the winter like other bears; they will remain active and hunt even during the harshest weather.
Interior Alaskan Wolf
The interior Alaskan wolf, also known as the Yukon wolf, is a subspecies of the more widely distributed grey wolf. They are found throughout forests and tundra in Alaska’s interior regions as well as Canada’s Yukon territory. They have two layers of thick fur for protection from the elements, and their coloring can range from white, grey, tan, or black.
Generally regarded as some of the largest wolves in North America, the interior Alaskan wolf typically weighs between 85 to 125 pounds. Although not scientifically confirmed, there have been historical reports of interior Alaskan wolves weighing upwards of 200 pounds.
Like most wolves, interior Alaskan wolves live in familial packs that typically consist of 7 to 9 wolves led by a breeding pair. This pair is known as the alpha male and alpha female. The pack works together closely to take down much larger prey, such as moose and caribou. When not hunting, the pack will remain close-knit and social, even sharing pup-rearing responsibilities!